The full Friel.
BRIAN FRIEL: THEATRE AND POLITICS
BASINGSTOKE: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2011.
55 [pounds sterling] HB/18.99 [pounds sterling] PB
TWENTY-FOUR ORIGINAL plays and eight translations/versions written over fifty years--it's a major canon of work by Brian Friel, a huge achievement that Anthony Roche sets out to explore in this monograph. He does not find space to give much attention to the translations or adaptations, but he manages to deal with all the full-length plays in the course of the book. And he draws extensively on the voluminous archive of Friel papers in the National Library of Ireland to illuminate the finished texts. As a result, it is possible now to see Friel's work in its entirety as never before, and to distinguish its key features.
Reflecting on his observations of the Irish director Tyrone Guthrie at work in Minneapolis in a magazine article in 1964, Friel said, "I learned that the first function [of theatre] is to entertain." That is indeed the effect achieved by the use of the split persona in Philadelphia Here I Come! "Escaping containment" is the title of Roche's first chapter on the early plays, and in the context of Friel's first radio and stage plays (most of which he has disowned), Private Gar does appear like a Jack-out-of-the-box disrupting the surface deadness of small town Ballybeg. A self-reminder by Friel in his notes while writing Volunteers emphasized that "the comic element is crucial." Volunteers, the 1975 play about the group of political prisoners involved in an archaeological dig who are going to be murdered for collaboration with the authorities when they return to their cells, is hardly a comedy but it is enlivened throughout by the play-acting of the joker Keeney and his partner Pyne. Keeney, in fact is a recognizable Friel type, close kin to Skinner in The Freedom of the City, the fast-talking clown who sends up every sort of orthodoxy in his laughing irreverence. The comic dimension of entertainment is crucial in every single play of Friel, however plangent the theme or black the ending--and is there any Friel play that ends happily? Maybe The London Vertigo, Friel's adaptation of Charles Macklin's eighteenth-century farce.
"I suppose what I'm really trying to avoid is the threadbare device of realism," wrote Friel in another note to himself, this time when writing Aristocrats. It's an important statement for Roche, as one part of the argument of this book is that Friel has been a much more radically experimental playwright than has been generally acknowledged. Certainly, many of the plays break out of the frame of proscenium arch-composed realism, not least because so many of the characters turn out to be dead. From the two teenagers in "Winners," one of the one-act plays in the diptych Lovers, through the three monolognists in Faith Healer to the composer Janacek in Performances, live actors on stage impersonate people who have already died, the liveness of their acting played off against the fact of their deaths. Roche dismisses the oversimplified notion that Friel's common use of narrators in his plays is a hangover from his early practice as a short story writer. Instead he rightly insists on the importance of the onstage narrator as performer and the way the narrative interacts with the live action, disrupting the stability of theatrical illusion.
And what of the politics of Friel's plays, highlighted in the subtitle of this book? Roche argues that too much exclusive attention has been paid to Northern Ireland in considering the political dimensions to the plays and that one of his aims is to broaden this focus. He does this by emphasizing the extent to which Friel is concerned with the politics of the Republic as well as the North. So, for example, The Mundy Scheme (1969), probably Friel's most disregarded play, is a satire centering on a Taoiseach and corrupt cabinet who come up with the notion of selling the West of Ireland to Irish-Americans as a burial ground, a sort of vast Forest Lawn in the bogs. Wonderful Tennessee (1993), which unlike The Mundy Scheme Roche sees as an unfairly neglected work, he considers an exposure of spiritually bankrupt Celtic Tiger Ireland just emerging at the time of writing. One of the most interesting revelations from the archive is that The Freedom of the City was not written in immediate knee-jerk reaction to Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Report, as has been generally supposed, but had been started in 1970. With a few exceptions, Roche maintains that Friel's plays have to be read as more oblique comments on Irish politics, North and South, and indeed other forms of politics altogether.
So, for example, he draws on the work of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek to examine the role of fantasy in Friel. Instead of seeing Friel's fantasists, Gar in Philadelphia, Cass in The Loves of Cass Maguire, Casimir in Aristocrats, as mere escapists, he argues that their fantasies show up the "unacknowledged and fixed substratum of fantasy" posited by Zizek in society itself. Gar is thus not a mere daydreaming retarded adolescent in flight from the reality of his father's tyranny but in thrall to the law of the Father that underpins the whole community of Ballybeg. This is even more evident in Aristocrats, where the paralyzed father for most of the play is only represented by a disembodied voice relayed from the bedroom, before which Casimir is reduced to an infantilised wreck. Such an analysis breaks down the distinction between explicitly political plays concerned with public issues and private plays about personal relationships, and extends the range of what can be considered political.
One of the most attractive features of this book, in fact, is its organization around specific themes that allow us to see Friel's work in new ways. Although it does follow a roughly chronological order, the groupings are not bound to chronology. The second chapter, focused on Friel's relationship with directors, his mentor Tyrone Guthrie and Hilton Edwards, who directed several of Friel's plays in the 1960s, deals not only with these early works but The Gentle Island and The Home Place in which Roche sees Edwards and Guthrie surrogates. A later chapter looks at the unacknowledged impact of contemporary British drama on two of Friel's works Crystal and Fox and Volunteers. What are generally thought of as very different sorts of plays from the 1970s, The Gentle Island, The Freedom of the City, Living Quarters and Aristocrats are brought together and considered under the rubric of "the politics of space." Friel's engagement with the Field Day Theatre Company has always meant that the three plays he wrote for them are read as a collective unit. Here they appear in three different chapters: Translations as a case study on its own, Making History along with Faith Healer and Dancing at Lughnasa in the chapter on "memory and history," while The Communication Cord is matched with Wonderful Tennessee and Give Me Your Answer, Do! (1997) in the final chapter as they are all concerned with "negotiating the present."
There are of course some disadvantages to this strategy. The chapters have a tendency to appear to be discrete essays, individual interventions in Friel criticism, valuable in themselves but without the dynamic of a continuing argument. So the theories of Zizek appear only in the chapter on fantasy, to be replaced in the chapter on memory and history by the ideas of Paul Ricoeur. Roche makes a strong case for the impact of individual British plays on two of Friel's work, but we never hear more about his relationship with British--or American--theatre. Translations is treated ingeniously as a whodunnit, "an inquiry into the disappearance of Lieutenant George Yolland," based on the fact that we never know for certain what has happened to him. But how seriously are we to take the suggestion that Yolland might have been murdered by a putatively gay Owen, out of jealous rage at Yolland's love for Maire? And where does the indefinition of the ending leave us with the politics of the play?
The mean-spirited reviewer inevitably looks for errors if only to emphasize how thoroughly he has done his work. There are actually a fair few uncorrected mistakes in the book. The figures in Volunteers are not involved in an "architectural" but an archaeological dig. It is murder not manslaughter of which Crystal and Fox's son stands accused. Names have a tendency to go awry; for some reason Roche has a blind spot when it comes to spelling Ricoeur, whose work he uses extensively and effectively. We are told that "Stanislavski and Grotowski were long dead before [Friel] began his career as a playwright." Well, Stanislavski was, but the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999) was in fact just beginning to work in the theatre at the same time as Friel. The love of Peter for the younger Shane in The Gentle Island might well be considered a case of pederasty but not "paedophilia."
Enough finger-wagging: this is a comprehensive overview of the work of Brian Friel, with new and imaginative insights throughout, evidently inspired by a passionate love of the subject. All of us interested in Friel should be grateful for it.
--Trinity College Dublin
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|Title Annotation:||Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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